Crisis Over Pet Food Extracting Healthy Cost

Some pet-food firms could face the possibility of losing loyal customers because of the recent poison scare.
Some pet-food firms could face the possibility of losing loyal customers because of the recent poison scare. (By Justin Sullivan -- Getty Images)
By Rick Weiss and Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

In Nevada, the chief executive of an import company examines the lawsuit that just hit him, wondering how much it will cost to ensure that his next purchases of pet food ingredients are free of industrial poisons.

In Kansas, wheat growers wonder how China usurped the once-bustling market in gluten, a protein-rich byproduct of those amber waves of grain that once symbolized America's bounty.

And at a park in Washington, the owner of a soft-coated terrier says that after learning the food he had been giving his beloved Checkers for the past six years was on the recall list, he will never again buy pet food brands with foreign ingredients.

"They've lost a lot of credibility," said Fred Mitzner, who after the recall started buying California Natural dog food. "It was very upsetting."

While the Food and Drug Administration pursues what is sure to be a long investigation into how pet food became contaminated with an ingredient for making plastics, and while Congress begins the months-long process of haggling over food-safety amendments, pet food companies, their suppliers and their customers do not have the luxury of waiting.

They have to cope with the crisis immediately, and for most, that is already proving expensive.

Stephen S. Miller, chief executive of ChemNutra of Las Vegas, was sued last week by a pet food company to which it had sold tainted Chinese wheat gluten. He now faces legal fees and the costs of extra on-site inspections he plans to impose on his Chinese suppliers.

Producers of brand-name pet foods, several of which were revealed by the recall to use the same ingredients that economy chow makers use, stand to lose once-loyal customers, many of whom are saying they would not return to their former brands.

And some pet owners like Mitzner, fed up with worrying about poisoning their animals, can expect to pay up to three times as much for organic or other specialty chows.

If there is one player that may benefit from the still-spreading disaster -- federal officials said yesterday that millions of chickens that ate the contaminated food were sold for human consumption -- it is the U.S. wheat gluten industry, which has been struggling for years to compete against cheaper Chinese imports.

"We've seen a renewal of interest in U.S.-manufactured wheat," said Steve Pickman, a vice president at MGP Ingredients of Atchison, Kan., one of four surviving wheat gluten companies in the United States.

People seem to be learning a lesson, Pickman said: "When you buy strictly on price, you don't necessarily get a bargain."

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